MOSCOW — To the boys, it was just a sugary treat. To their parents, prominent medical researchers, what happened in their Moscow apartment that day in 1959 was a vital experiment with countless lives at stake — and their own children as guinea pigs.
“We formed a kind of line,” Dr. Peter Chumakov, who was 7 at the time, recalled in an interview. Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. “I was eating it from the hands of my mother.”
Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr. Marina Voroshilova.
Dr. Voroshilova established that the live polio vaccine had an unexpected benefit that, it turns out, could be relevant to the current pandemic: People who got the vaccine did not become sick with other viral illnesses for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys polio vaccine each fall, as protection against flu.
Now, some scientists in several countries are taking a keen interest in the idea of repurposing existing vaccines, like the one with live poliovirus and another for tuberculosis, to see if they can provide at least temporary resistance to the coronavirus. Russians are among them, drawing on a long history of vaccine research — and of researchers, unconcerned about being scoffed at as mad scientists, experimenting on themselves.
Experts advise that the idea — like many other proposed ways of attacking the pandemic — must be approached with great caution.
“We are much better off with a vaccine that induces specific immunity,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus and professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. Any benefits from a repurposed vaccine, he said, are “much shorter lived and incomplete,” compared with a tailored vaccine.
Still, Dr. Robert Gallo, a leading advocate of testing the polio vaccine against coronavirus, said that repurposing vaccines is “one of the hottest areas of immunology.” Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that even if the weakened poliovirus confers immunity for only a month or so, “it gets you over the hump, and it would save a lot of lives.”
But there are risks.
Billions of people have taken live poliovirus vaccine, nearly eradicating the disease. However, in extremely rare cases, the weakened virus used in the vaccine can mutate into a more dangerous form, cause polio and infect other people. The risk of paralysis is estimated at one in 2.7 million vaccinations.
For those reasons, public health organizations say that once a region eliminates naturally occurring polio, it must stop routine use of oral vaccine, as the United States did 20 years ago.
And this month, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases delayed a study designed by Dr. Gallo’s institute, the Cleveland Clinic, the University of Buffalo and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center to test the effectiveness of live polio vaccine against coronavirus, using health care workers as subjects. The agency raised safety concerns, including the chance of live poliovirus making its way into water supplies and infecting others, according to researchers familiar with the study application. The press office of the N.I.A.I.D. declined to comment.
But other countries are moving ahead. Trials with the polio vaccine have begun in Russia, and are planned in Iran and Guinea-Bissau.
A specific vaccine for the coronavirus would be one that trains the immune system to target that virus specifically, and more than 125 vaccine candidates are under development around the world.
Repurposed vaccines, in contrast, use live but weakened viruses or bacteria to stimulate the innate immune system more broadly to fight pathogens, at least temporarily.
The first polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, an American, used “inactivated” virus — particles of killed virus. It had to be injected, an obstacle to immunization campaigns in poorer countries.
When that vaccine was widely introduced in 1955, Dr. Albert Sabin was testing a vaccine using live but attenuated poliovirus, which could be taken orally. But in the United States, with the Salk vaccine already in use, the authorities were reluctant to take the perceived risk of conducting live-virus trials.
Dr. Sabin gave his three strains of attenuated virus to a married pair of virologists in the Soviet Union, Dr. Mikhail Chumakov, the founder of a polio research institute that now bears his name, and Dr. Voroshilova.
Dr. Chumakov vaccinated himself, but a medicine intended primarily for children needed child test subjects, so he and Dr. Voroshilova gave it to their three sons and several nieces and nephews.
Their experiment enabled Dr. Chumakov to persuade a senior Soviet official, Anastas Mikoyan, to proceed with wider trials, eventually leading to the mass production of an oral polio vaccine used around the world. The United States began oral polio vaccinations in 1961 after it was proved safe in the Soviet Union.
“Somebody has to be the first,” Dr. Peter Chumakov said in an interview. “I was never angry. I think it was very good to have such a father, who is confident enough that what he is doing is right and is sure he will not harm his children.”
His mother was, if anything, even more enthusiastic about running the tests on the boys, he said.
“She was absolutely sure there was nothing to be scared of,” he said.
Something Dr. Voroshilova noticed decades ago has renewed interest in the oral vaccine.
A typical healthy child is host to a dozen or so respiratory viruses that cause little or no illness. But Dr. Voroshilova could not find any of them in children soon after they were immunized against polio.
Updated June 24, 2020
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
A huge study in the Soviet Union of 320,000 people, from 1968 to 1975, overseen by Dr. Voroshilova, found reduced mortality from flu in people immunized with other vaccines, including the oral polio vaccine.
She won recognition in the Soviet Union for demonstrating a link between vaccinations and broad protection against viral diseases, likely by stimulating the immune system.
Dr. Voroshilova’s and Dr. Chumakov’s work clearly influenced their sons’ minds as well as their health — not only did all of them become virologists, they embraced self-testing as well.
Dr. Peter Chumakov today is the chief scientist at the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-founder of a company in Cleveland that treats cancer with viruses. He has developed about 25 viruses for use against tumors — all of which, he said, he has tested on himself.
He is also now taking polio vaccine, which he grows in his own laboratory, as possible protection against coronavirus.
Dr. Ilia Chumakov, a molecular biologist, helped sequence the human genome in France.
Dr. Alexei Chumakov, who was not yet born when his parents experimented on his brothers, worked as a cancer researcher at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles for much of his career. While working in Moscow, he developed a vaccine against hepatitis E, which he tested first on himself.
“It’s an old tradition,” he said. “The engineer should stand under the bridge when the first heavy load goes over.”
Dr. Konstantin Chumakov is an associate director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Vaccine Research and Review, which would be involved in approving any coronavirus vaccines for use in Americans. He is also a co-author, with Dr. Gallo and others, of a recent article in the journal Science that promotes research into repurposing existing vaccines.
In an interview, Dr. Konstantin Chumakov said he cannot remember eating the sugar cube back in 1959 — he was 5 years old — but approved of his parents’ experiment as a step toward saving untold numbers of children from paralysis.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “Now, there would be questions, like ‘Did you get permission from the ethics committee?’”
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.